“Lincoln is a president I turn to often…” begins President Barack Obama’s essay in the current Atlantic Civil War commemorative issue. This edition, to released today, features a special partnership with the National Portrait Gallery in which NPG Civil War images, as well as images from other Civil War collections, are paired with original Atlantic features by such writers as Mark Twain, Charles Francis Adams, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Of the many excellent moments in this journal, the first is a short essay by President Obama in which he discusses one of the NPG’s prize works, the portrait of Abraham Lincoln by Alexander Gardner in which the photographic plate is cracked.
NPG Historian David C. Ward and Associate Curator of Photographs Frank Goodyear selected the images and worked with the editors of The Atlantic to place them in historical context. Ward and Goodyear note, “In the writings from The Atlantic and photographs from the National Portrait Gallery . . . one can see a people grappling to make sense of life in the cauldron of war. And one can see, in hesitant and undeveloped ways, the emergence of the modern United States of America.”
In late 2010, Ward gave a tour of the NPG “Hide/Seek” exhibition to the Atlantic editors (Ward was a co-curator of the exhibition). Members of The Atlantic staff returned for a visit to the Patent Office Building and the NPG collections.
“That tour sparked the idea of a cooperative venture in which the magazine drew on the NPG’s intellectual and artistic resources in publishing its commemorative issue on the Civil War. Both sides are very pleased with how things worked and hope to do more of this kind of collaborative programming and publishing in the future,” Ward said.
The 150th anniversary of the American Civil War is being remembered by institutions across the nation in many ways. Few of them, however, have the memory of the Smithsonian or the Atlantic; fewer still have visual and written archives of America’s most divisive years.
Since the magazine’s inception in 1857, it has documented and commented on America’s progress, status, and past, while the Smithsonian’s mission—“the increase and diffusion of knowledge”—and its collections, such as the Civil War holdings, tell the story of the country’s past through its material culture.
Perspectives in this commemorative issue and the accompanying images are diverse and resonant, and many of the photographs—the scars on the back of the beaten slave, the bodies of dead soldiers in the field at Antietam—implore the viewer to seek out a higher meaning in the horror. President Obama characterizes Abraham Lincoln in terms of this imperative when he writes, “But Lincoln saw beyond the bloodshed and division. He saw us not only as we were, but as we might be. And he calls on us through the ages to commit ourselves to the unfinished work he so nobly advanced—the work of perfecting our Union.”
Abraham Lincoln/Alexander Gardner, 1865/Albumen silver print/National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Gordon / Mathew Brady Studio / Albumen silver print, 1863 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution